Michael Essien, Chelsea’s selfless hero, and the folly of utility men

In Depth

Others may have contributed more to Chelsea‘s success over the past 15 years, but Michael Essien deserves to be ranked among the greats of the club.

The utility man in football has a curious existence. Like a knife, they’re useful, nay essential, to have around, capable of doing a variety of odd jobs. They’re beloved by managers for their ability to do just about anything.

The utility man, however, can be easily forgotten, their importance overlooked in favour of those who do flashier things on a football pitch. Being a utility man can also have a detrimental effect on the player himself: because he is capable of filling in the blanks almost everywhere he is unable to nail down an exact position in the team when there’s a fire to be fought in a different position on a weekly basis.

In this regard they are as important as they are expendable, a dual existence that must be baffling to those in the role.

Cesar Azpilicueta plays the firefighting role at Chelsea these days but in years past there was no better exponent of the craft than Michael Essien, Chelsea’s Man For All Seasons.

Signed for £24.4million from Lyon in the summer of 2005, Essien became the most expensive African player as he eclipsed the £24million record set by Didier Drogba the previous summer.

Competition for places in reigning champions’ midfield was rife, with Jose Mourinho’s side winning the 2004-05 Premier League title at a canter – 12 points ahead of runners-up Arsenal. The Portuguese favoured a three-man midfield consisting of Tiago, Claude Makélélé and Frank Lampard. The defensive solidity provided by the former two allowed Lampard the freedom to strut his stuff further forward.

Yet Mourinho felt the need for an upgrade on his compatriot Tiago. In came Essien after two seasons with Lyon with culminated with the Player of the Year award in his final campaign.

At 22, Essien was in the right spot to be molded into a Mourinho player: old enough to not require mollycoddling; young and ambitious enough to be coached into a footballer fit for the highest level.

Mourinho’s motivation for shelling out a club-record fee at the time was particularly revealing. “We believe he is the best we can get for his position and he can play anywhere in midfield,” he said, alluding Essien’s versatility.

The manager had urged Chelsea to remain persistent in order to seal the deal after being rebuffed in their approach by Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas on a number of occasions. Essien eventually arrived and Tiago moved in the opposite direction in an unrelated deal.

Nicknamed the ‘Bison’, Essien hit the ground running at Chelsea in a 1-0 defeat of Arsenal, supplying the assist for Drogba’s fortuitous goal. The Ghanaian established himself in the Chelsea XI alongside Makélélé and Lampard as they successfully defended their title, making 31 appearances in the league and 41 in all competitions.

It wasn’t plain sailing for the man described as a “physical monster” by his ex-Lyon teammates, however. The 22-year-old had an on-field temper despite being famously gentle off it and a vicious challenge on Mohammed Kallon of Monaco in his final season in France was a prelude of things to come in England.

There are two incidents that merit inclusion due to the sheer force of Essien’s challenge in his maiden Premier League season. First, there was a meaty tackle on Bolton’s Tal Ben Haim in October which should have seen him sent off, but he somehow escaped with a yellow card.

The worst, though, was yet to come. Two months later during a Champions League group game with Liverpool, Essien went studs-up on Dietmar Hamman just below the knee in what one is contractually obliged to describe as a ‘horror tackle’.

The referee missed the incident at the time but UEFA did not. Essien was handed a two-game ban.

In the years that followed Essien reined in the nasty tackles as he grew in influence within the Chelsea ranks.

His versatility was well known from his Lyon days and, despite his insistence that he preferred to play in central midfield, he was never one to complain, going about his duties admirably wherever he was asked to. Right-back, centre-back or in midfield, he had no problems fitting in seamlessly in any of those positions.

The beauty of Essien’s game was his seeming ability to do it all: he could pick a pass, bomb forward as a box-to-box midfielder or provide a shield for the defence with relative ease.

It’s fitting that he combined lung-bursting surges forward with relentless tackling given he modeled his game after Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane – the latter of whom he could have played alongside had the bureaucratic issue of a work permit not gotten in the way following a trial in 1999.

Not especially known for goal scoring, Essien chipped in with a few that were, more often than not, of the highest quality.

There was the stunning equaliser against Arsenal in 2006-07 that was voted Chelsea’s Goal of the Season and the goal against Valencia to send Chelsea into the semi-finals of the Champions League later that term. Essien ended the campaign by being named Chelsea’s Player of the Season, the first African to win the award.

Following Mourinho’s dismissal at the start of the 2007-08 campaign and the subsequent appointment of Avram Grant, it was testament to the squad’s character that they managed to put a run together which ended with them ultimately falling just short of the top honours both in the league and Europe.

One of the enduring images of the 2008 Champions League final is of Cristiano Ronaldo towering above Essien to score the opener for Manchester United as the Ghanaian started at right-back. He endured a tough start against Ronaldo, who was having arguably the best season ever by a Premier League player at the time.

But what is not quickly remembered is that Essien grew gradually into the game and eventually stopped the rot. That he started in an unorthodox position in the biggest game of his career at that point, and performed admirably well, speaks highly of his dedication to the cause.

Cruelly that was as good as it got for Essien at Stamford Bridge.

In a World Cup qualifier against Libya, the midfielder landed awkwardly and suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament as a result, ruling him out for more than six months. This would be the first of many serious knee injuries that effectively put paid to his Chelsea career.

He returned as the 2008-09 season drew to its close, scoring another Goal of the Season against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final – a game which is now remembered for a number of controversial decisions by the officials which cost Chelsea.

There was another lengthy absence in 2010 which saw him miss the World Cup in South Africa, and, finally, there was yet another ruptured cruciate ligament in the pre-season of 2011 which ruled him out for another six months.

When the story of Roman Abramovich’s takeover and eventual Champions League success is told, players like Drogba, Lampard, John Terry and Petr Cech will rightfully be honoured for their contribution to turning a billionaire’s far-fetched dream into reality.

Below that rung of players there will be a place for a man who went about his business quietly, sometimes forcefully, and put the team’s interest above his own personal desires. Despite his limited involvement in the 2012 Champions League triumph, history will definitely be kind to Essien when all is said and done.

By Aanu Adeoye

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